Finding a home with the Housing Center

New director, Rob Breymaier, has a long connection to fair housing

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By BOB SKOLNIK

Ten years ago Rob Breymaier was a graduate student in geography and planning at the University of Toledo. A teaching assistant position he was expecting fell through. So he went looking for an internship. The most sought-after internships for planning students were with the city of Toledo. But by the time Breymaier started looking, those internships had all been snatched up. So Breymaier took an internship with the Toledo Fair Housing Center and began the path that brought him to Oak Park in June as the new executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center with deep and extensive experience in fair housing at the young age of 35.

The immediate circumstances that led Breymaier to Oak Park are just as fortuitous. For the past two years, he worked as the director of community relations for the Leadership Council of Metropolitan Open Communities, the granddaddy of all fair housing groups in the Chicago area. The Leadership Council was founded in 1966, and its roots trace back directly to Dr. Martin Luther King's work in Chicago. But this spring, after 40 years, the board of the Leadership Council decided to close its doors due to financial problems.

Breymaier needed a new job just when the Housing Center was in the midst of a long and difficult search for a new executive director.

"Their loss is our gain," said Rick Kuner, president of the Housing Center board. "He's got a lot of energy, and he's got a lot of enthusiasm, and that's good. To some extent it's a bittersweet occasion because the loss of the Leadership Council is a big loss."

The Leadership Council closed its doors on June 2. Breymaier started at the Housing Center on June 12th.

Breymaier currently lives in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with his wife, Bharaphi Jayaram, and their 2-year-old son. He is only the third executive director in the Housing Center's 36-year history and the first non-native Oak Parker to hold the position.

And he takes over at a crucial time for the Housing Center, which was founded in 1972 by Bobbie Raymond in an attempt to promote and maintain stable racial integration in Oak Park at a time when many felt it was impossible to maintain integrated community for the long term.

In 1996, Aggie Stempniak took over when Raymond retired. Stempniak had the unenviable task of following a legend. She abruptly resigned last Aug. 26 in a move that both she and Kuner term voluntary. But one former board member, Paul Hamer, feels that Stempniak was forced out.

Stempniak, like Raymond a native Oak Parker, now works as the public information officer for the Village of Park Ridge.

"I resigned and I left," said Stempniak. "It's what I wanted to do."

Critical juncture

Breymaier takes over at a critical time for the Housing Center. There has been a sense among some observers that the Housing Center has stagnated and failed to keep up with the times. Some see it as no longer necessary or feel that its methods are outdated-or even unfair-while many veterans of the 1960s and '70s feel that more recent residents of Oak Park don't truly understand the struggle it took to maintain an integrated community and insist that the work is never done.

In recent years the Housing Center has run operating deficits. In 2005 the deficit was $115,567 according to figures provided by Breymaier. Kuner says the Housing Center has no debt, but has been spending down its reserves.

"The operating reserves are less than we would like," he noted.

The Housing Center gets more than 80 percent of its funding from the Village of Oak Park. It receives $346,953 for serving as the marketing agent for buildings in the village's Diversity Assurance Program and $240,000 in federal Community Development Block grants from the village.

Diversifying the funding base and increasing the donor base is an important priority for Breymaier.

In addition to questions about funding, some members of the village board have become more skeptical in recent years of the race-conscious techniques the Housing Center uses to promote integration.

"To me there are no sacred cows," said Village Trustee Geoff Baker. "Three decades on, you would be foolish not to examine it."

Breymaier, however, believes deeply in the cause of the Housing Center and defends the methods it uses to promote and maintain integration.

The road to Oak Park

He grew up in a nearly all-white suburb of Toledo and has always been concerned about social issues.

When it came time for him to cast his first ballot, he voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Ohio Democratic presidential primary.

"Ever since I was a kid, I was interested in civil rights and fairness and those kinds of things," said Breymaier in a recent interview in the Housing Center's offices on South Boulevard. "I was taught at an early age to treat everybody with respect and dignity and to treat everyone the same."

After getting his master's degree, he came to Chicago for a job at the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs. After a few years there, his wife, a clinical social worker, received a fellowship at the University of New Mexico Hospitals and the couple moved to Albuquerque for two years. There Breymaier worked for a micro-credit lending organization, the Legal Aid Society, and for the City of Albuquerque as an equal employment officer.

Then he came back to Chicago to work for the Leadership Council where he did, among other things, community outreach. Breymaier has deep roots and many connections in the fair housing community. He serves as the president of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, a group of 30 fair housing organizations.

At the Leadership Council, John Lukehart was an important mentor.

Lukehart, a longtime staffer and former executive director at the Leadership Council and a 26-year Oak Park resident, believes Breymaier will have a big impact on Oak Park and the Housing Center.

"He's a great guy," said Lukehart. "He has very good people skills. He's enormously committed to inclusivity."

Raymond mostly steers clear of the Housing Center these days but is still vitally interested in its work and is always willing to throw out an idea or three. She has talked with Breymaier a few times and has come away impressed.

"I have been very favorably impressed with Rob," said Raymond. "I think he is very dedicated. He seems to be working really hard. Rob is going to take a good, hard look at the Housing Center and what needs to be done. I really think the issue is still a very important issue."

A fresh set of eyes

Raymond said nothing stays the same and the Housing Center, her creation, must continue to grow and evolve.

"I think it is a good thing to reinvent yourself periodically," she said.

Breymaier said he doesn't have any major changes in mind right now, but feels his lack of roots in Oak Park will be a benefit.

"I feel that since I didn't grow up in Oak Park, I have a different set of eyes to look at the issues," he said.

Before taking the job, he occasionally came to Oak Park to see friends, shop and for entertainment. Now he is really getting to know our town.

"The onus is on me to get to know the community really, really well," he acknowledged.

Breymaier said he would like to increase the regional focus of the Housing Center. It's important to promote racial integration on a regional basis because it's difficult for Oak Park to remain integrated if surrounding communities are mostly segregated. He noted the Chicago area was recently rated the fifth most segregated metropolitan area in the country. He plans to take advantage of his many connections throughout the Chicago area and to try and work more with other communities.

Another priority is increasing the Housing Center's donor base and lessen its financial dependence of the village.

The one-time Eagle Scout is trim and fit and enjoys camping and backpacking in the West. He recently returned from a vacation in Colorado. He's interested in a wide range of issues, is a sometimes blogger, and belongs to a book club.

He said he'll probably be moving to Oak Park.

But if he does he won't be using the services of the Housing Center which works only with renters.

"If we move, we're probably going to buy," said Breymaier. "We rent now, and we're tired of renting."

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